Monday, March 2, 2015

WHEN ST. FRANCIS WAS KING



What was one of the largest schools on Guam in the 1950s and 60s?

Saint Francis School in Yoña.

At one time, the student population at Saint Francis was 1500 students. For some years, one could get an education at Saint Francis up to the 10th grade.

The school was so huge that there was no public elementary school in Yoña for some time because there would have been insufficient students to justify its existence! Imagine the Department of Education telling people, "We have no public school in Yoña. The parochial school has all the children!"


THE MAN BEHIND THE SUCCESS




One word (name) is sufficient to explain why a Catholic school in the south of Guam was once the island's biggest private school. Father Alvin.

Father Alvin LaFeir was a one-man typhoon. Except that he used his power in order to build, not to destroy.

A missionary who came to Guam before World War II and who spent the war in POW camp in Japan, some people said Father Alvin would have been Mayor of Detroit had he not become a priest. He was (in the good sense) a wheeler-dealer. Someone who slept very little because he was always working to get things done. The sky was the limit for him. He dreamt of building something huge, even if he had no money or resources.

In another sense, he had everything he needed to make those dreams come true because he had his biggest asset : himself. He was blessed with the natural ability to make strong friendships. People, of all races and creeds, found it impossible to say "no" to him. He got help from Protestants and Catholics alike. Money came in from his numerous contacts back in his native Detroit. The military on Guam came to his rescue numerous times.

So Father Alvin dreamt big. Others came before him in Yoña. but he wanted to expand ten-fold what the prior missionaries did. On the large tract of land belonging to the Catholic Church in Yoña, he wanted to build a complete parish complex : a church, a school and a sisters' convent. The school would have a large auditorium which the parish could also use as a hall. For his own office and residence (or konbento), the old church built by the Spanish Capuchins before the war would suffice. His needs came last. He often ate right out of a can, since he was too busy to cook.

More than once, but especially in 1962 with Typhoon Karen, Father Alvin had to rebuild what was torn apart by Guam's typhoons. From the quonset hut school Father Cyril Langheim, OFM Cap built in 1949, the complete parish complex was finished in the early 1960s.

It's not a surprise, really, that Father Alvin died in 1966 at the age of  60 years. He had burnt himself out.


FREE TUTION FOR PARISHIONERS

Of course Father Alvin couldn't make his dreams come true without the help of the Yoña parishioners. They all pitched in undertaking numerous fundraising and construction projects. In return, all children of parishioners went to the school tuition-free. Non-parishioners (like my family) paid a small fee. I remember in the late 60s, my tuition was $35 a month.

Other non-parishioners came in large numbers from as far north as Andersen Air Force Base. That was Father Alvin's military connections at work.



THE HEROIC WORK OF THE SISTERS





The foundation of the success of Saint Francis School was, of course, the heroic work of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

People had faith in their teaching credentials. Americanization (which meant fluency in English, the key to success, parents believed) was the program of the day and the first Sisters were Americans.

They also taught for close to nothing. Father Alvin and the parishioners paid for their needs, but the sisters received no salaries per se until many years later. This was the reason why parishioners did not pay tuition. When lay teachers were needed to make up for the insufficient numbers of teaching sisters, salaries were needed and thus tuition became mandatory for everyone, and at increasing levels as the years went by. As other factors emerged and combined, the student population of Saint Francis decreased.

But, at one time, Saint Francis School was king.

1 comment:

  1. This Blog is so true, I spent 18 months on Guam from 1960 to 1961 and I lived at St Frances with my uncle Fr Alvin. I was in the Navy at that time and stationed there.

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